Eye Doctors: Vision Health Must Be Higher Priority for Individuals, Nation

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Speaking on a recent BrightFocus Chat, two optometrists discussed a new report on vision health from the National Academy of Sciences and how both individuals and the nation can make protecting sight a higher priority.

According to Sandra Block, OD, a professor at the Illinois College of Optometry and a member of the Academy study panel, vision health needs to be more at the forefront of both public policy and public health concerns.  Vision diseases such as macular degeneration are already a significant problem, Dr. Block noted, adding that they will only get worse with the growing aging population that is most at risk for vision disease.

Christina Morettin, OD, an assistant professor at the Illinois College of Optometry and Chief of Urgent Eye Care, spoke of the importance of prevention, saying that in her daily work with patients she sees many who did not detect a problem until damage has already occurred.

“I work in our urgent eye care clinic a lot, and I see many people come in who have not taken care of their eye health until it has become too late,” Morettin said, adding,  “The biggest thing for me is prevention in your annual exam.”

According to Block, “The nerve endings in your eye do not give you pain, so you may not realize that there is a vision problem,” she said.

Both doctors underscored that what is often referred to as a “comprehensive eye exam” should include not only a look at the visual acuity in each eye, but also a look at the back of the eye, through dilation with eye drops or newer imaging equipment.    

One of the benefits of early detection, they said, is the ability to change the risk factors over which people can control, such as diet, smoking, and exposure to sun. 

Ultraviolet (UV) light can be a problem, Block said, “You want to prevent any of that UV light that can hurt the eyes; protect them as early as you can,” adding, “There is no age that is too young” to start doing this.

If someone has a vision disease like glaucoma or macular degeneration, or a family history of these diseases, let your kids or grandkids know, says Morettin. “If you have macular degeneration, let them know that this runs in the family,” so the family understands to observe UV protection from a young age, or to get comprehensive exams.

Block, who also works with special needs populations on eye care, looks at the arc of eye health over a lifetime.  “Our goal is to ensure that children have the opportunity to grow and develop fully,” says Block. “That means we need to protect their vision and their eyesight from infancy all the way to adulthood.”

The National Academy of Sciences panel had a number of recommendations on making vision disease a higher priority in US health care, including greater public awareness, better tracking of the numbers of people affected by vision disease, and more funding of vision research.

“The other piece that we often ignore is that vision should not be siloed,” says Block, speaking of the “holistic view” of each patient. “We always talk about going to your optometrist separately from going to your health care provider.  We need to educate all health care providers to integrate vision into the basic health care system.”